Former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Chuck Philips, whose career was ruined when the Times published a rare front-page retraction of his March 17, 2008, article about the infamous 1994 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur, is demanding that the newspaper apologize and take back its retraction of his story, “An Attack on Tupac Shakur Launched a Hip-Hop War.”
Philips’ demand comes several days after his key unnamed source in the Shakur story revealed himself and corroborated Philips’ 2008 reporting.
"I want them to run a front-page retraction,” Philips, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, tells L.A. Weekly. “Same size, same place.”
Times management has not responded to requests by the Weekly for a comment. A front-page retraction is exceedingly rare in journalism.
On June 15, Dexter Isaac, imprisoned in New York for murder, admitted to participating in the 1994 attack on Shakur that set off the East Coast–West Coast rap war. The Times has ignored Isaac’s corroboration of Philips’ reporting, covering it dismissively the next day with short wire stories.
Isaac, serving life, went public in a letter published on AllHipHop.com, claiming he was involved in the mugging of Shakur outside New York’s iconic Quad Studios. Philips reported in 2008 that the attack was masterminded by rap impresario James Rosemond, known as Jimmy Henchman, because Shakur wouldn’t take Rosemond on as manager.
The 2008 Times story ruined Philips’ career, he says, when FBI documents referenced throughout the story turned out to be fakes created by con man James Sabatino. Although the FBI documents were bogus, they had been attached to a case in federal court.
Philips says his editors at the Times, who also were fooled by the documents, had insisted that he include the FBI papers in his story as a powerful backup to his findings. Those findings were based on interviews with four unnamed sources he said were involved in, or knew about, the attack on Shakur.
When widely read New York website TheSmokingGun.com proved the FBI documents to be fake, the newspaper’s management turned on Philips.
Philips believes Isaac’s admission vindicates him — and he wants his reputation back. During nearly 20 years of reporting for the Times, “I never had a major error in a story before,” Philips says. “I had a couple small corrections. No serious drama.”
Shakur is said to have been shot and robbed in 1994 before his murder in a 1996 Las Vegas drive-by shooting. Six months after Shakur’s murder, rival rapper Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace was gone, too — his fabled 300-pound frame slumped over the dashboard of his monster SUV at a Los Angeles intersection.
Philips worked to track down Shakur’s and Wallace’s killers, taking on a mystery that the NYPD, the Vegas police and the LAPD had failed to solve: the shootings that punctuated a bicoastal rap-industry feud.
Philips’ series of stories on Shakur versus B.I.G. was sourced almost entirely anonymously, all of it approved by his editors.
Shakur’s killers, Philips wrote in 2002, were Compton-area Crips, who did the deed while Wallace nodded his approval from a Vegas hotel suite in 1996.
After Wallace was killed in L.A. the next year, Times coverage indicated that the lead suspects were, once again, the Crips.
Philips’ approach was called into question by media critics and hip-hop heads long before 2008. His sources were unverifiable, and Philips’ early accounts dramatically clashed with popular theory. Music blogs speculated that Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight had Shakur killed upon learning he might leave the label, then conspired with dirty LAPD officers to kill Wallace six months later.
Media skepticism toward Philips’ coverage went big in 2005, when Rolling Stone ran a piece by Randall Sullivan that sided with the conspiracy theory in which at least one Los Angeles cop helped kill Wallace.
Sullivan’s 13-page blowout was heavily based on the account of ex–LAPD officer Russell Poole, who alleged that a black officer with a supposed Tupac shrine in his home arranged Wallace’s assassination.
The Times stood by its reporter in a letter to Rolling Stone, stating, “Philips’ story has withstood all challenges to its accuracy, including Sullivan’s.”
Sullivan snapped back: “The Times has not produced a single witness or a shred of evidence to suggest that B.I.G. was even in Las Vegas” when Shakur was slain.
Philips, unfazed by the online and media campaign against his work, then decided, in 2007, to tackle Shakur’s original 1994 shooting. Philips says Isaac, then in prison, anonymously confessed to Philips that he had played a hand in that attack on Shakur, who was robbed of $40,000 in jewelry.